There’s more work than luck in O’Hanlon’s success

Niall O’Hanlon is a man most Reginans know, but really don’t.

Photograph by: Bryan Schlosser, QC

He is the high-energy Irishman who runs one of the Queen City’s busiest and most high profile pubs. But he’s earned his reputation only because of the Scarth Street pub that bears his name. When it comes to marketing and public relations, he prefers to take the proverbial back seat and let his business speak for itself.

“I love it. I can’t really describe it. It’s something that I’ve loved from the very beginning,” says O’Hanlon during an afternoon break from the bartending, paperwork and friendly verbal jousting with customers that make up the long days he spends at O’Hanlon’s.

“ I don’t know how much I’d love it if we weren’t successful. So we are lucky that we are as successful as we are.”

Love is a theme that touches other parts of O’Hanlon’s life. Love is what brought him to Saskatchewan in 1996. When a young backpacker from Regina met O’Hanlon in Ireland, he fell in love so deeply he followed her home to Regina where he married, started a family and followed his dream of owning an Irish pub.

“In the end, it worked out,” a smiling O’Hanlon recalls. “My idea for an Irish pub was sort of redundant in Ireland anyway. This was a lot easier a market from a business perspective.”

Born in the southern Irish city of Limerick on Aug. 22, 1972 — that makes him 39 — O’Hanlon spent most of his youth in different cities across the country wherever his dad was able to find work as an accountant. While he admits the regular uprooting of his family took its toll on him and his two sisters, the fact his father was able to find work made the O’Hanlons stick out among families making their way in the 1970s and ’80s in Ireland.

“When you grew up in Ireland in the 1980s, the comment ‘oh, your dad has a job’ wasn’t that common.”

In high school, he had a conversation with a guidance counsellor that he still remembers today. He was told he was best suited to follow in his father’s footsteps and become an accountant.

“It was one of the saddest days of my life. They told me I should be an accountant. After all the jokes I had made at my father’s expense, it was ironic,” he says.

When he went off to college, life for O’Hanlon took a dramatic turn. At 17, he father died from cancer, dealing him a blow that he admits he didn’t take well. It took him more than a year to put his father’s death into perspective.

“I got as wild as an accountant could get. I went wild for a few years,” said O’Hanlon, whose mother died from a blood disease when he was two. “My dad’s death was a hard loss.”

However, it was during his training during the day that he discovered a love for working in the evening. What helped him endure classes at the National University of Ireland in Galway and Dublin College University was the restaurant business and spending long nights in Irish pubs.

“I gained a huge dislike for the university part of it but I loved the bar side of it.”

After graduating, he continued in the pub, eventually taking on a manager’s role before going to work for investors who bought rundown taverns. O’Hanlon became good at being assigned to pubs with lousy reputations and spending about a year-and-a-half to turn them into successful neighbourhood eateries before they were sold again by his bosses for a tidy profit.

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As with stories about most people, things changed when O’Hanlon found love. While he declined to share details of his relationship with his wife Tobi — she’s shy, he says — and his two children (a girl, 6 and a boy, 2) he credits his wife for introducing him to Canada where he’s found personal and professional success.

He said Tobi had planned a trip to England, but due to a passport snafu, she found herself in Ireland and smitten with O’Hanlon. They moved together to Ireland and stayed two years before returning to Regina to stay for good where O’Hanlon had plans to open a pub and name it after himself.

At a time when retail shops and chain restaurants had abandoned downtown for strip malls in the suburbs, O’Hanlon was convinced he could do what he did in Ireland, introduce an Irish pub in the heart of the city.

Agreeing to lease a few hundred square feet from the Gardikiotis family who also became business partners in the new O’Hanlon’s, the new proprietor with a funny accent opened his doors in 2000.

“I did the same thing here I did in Ireland except I haven’t I haven’t flipped it,” he said. “People thought we were crazy for opening up downtown. People told me ‘why don’t you go to the south end’ or ‘the east end is really going to take off.’” And I am sure that was true,” he said.

“But I have always been a downtown kind of guy. And this was a different kind of venue.”

His gamble paid off. In the 11 years O’Hanlon has been open, it’s become more successful every year. He has expanded several times, hosts live music on the weekend and has been known as a place for all people. He estimates sales have increased 30 per cent every year. Today, O’Hanlons sells as much draft as biggest-selling pubs in Canada, and ranks second for sales of Guinness alone.

“The number of travelling suits coming through here in the last has two years has quadrupled,” said O’Hanlon.

This year and next, O’Hanlon’s is experiencing more growth. Last month, the rear of the pub was renovated and expanded to create a larger stage and expanded area for bigger crowds for weekend bands.

In February, O’Hanlon’s will become a brew pub and a new O’Hanlon’s off-sale will open next door.

In the time since O’Hanlon’s poured its first pint of Guinness, its owner has become a staunch proponent of downtown Regina where more than a handful of bars and restaurants have opened in hopes of sharing O’Hanlon’s success. He doesn’t see downtown restaurants as competition, but instead believes he’ll become more successful as Reginans find more reasons to come downtown, even if they come for drinks at Crave, Beer Brothers or The Rooftop Café, all of which opened after O’Hanlon’s.

“We are not in competition with each other. We are all trying to drag as many people downtown as possible. If one of us is successful, whether it’s Beer Brothers or myself, one leads overflow into the other,” said O’Hanlon, who believes he already benefits from the Copper Kettle and Michi restaurants that do business on either side of O’Hanlon’s.

Community leaders credit O’Hanlon for being among the first to help kick-start a rejuvenated downtown.

“He’s certainly done a lot for the entertainment scene downtown,” said Colin Perkowitsch, chairman of the city’s downtown business association. “He’s put in a pub that has a constant flow of people. No age groups feel out of place or unwelcome at his place. “

Mayor Pat Fiacco believes O’Hanlon’s opened at an ideal time in Regina’s history. O’Hanlon has enjoyed growth just as the city has.

“He took a risk. That was the first thing he did. He identified a need in downtown. And his timing was perfect,” said Fiacco. “And he has a cool accent. That helps too.”

And Fiacco believes O’Hanlon’s helped raise the bar for Regina restaurant owners, many of whom have gone out of business, in part, because they were deemed too seedy for a maturing Regina.

“The restaurant and bar environment in Regina in 2011 is way different than it was in 1999. There were a number of (seedy) establishments open then and all of them have closed,” Fiacco said.

Timothy Martin, a co-owner of Flip Restaurant, which recently opened around the corner from O’Hanlon’s at 1970 Hamilton St., credits O’Hanlon for leading the way among downtown restaurateurs.

“What he and the others have done along that strip of Scarth Street has been great. That can only help everybody,” he said.

Those who know O’Hanlon well believe the man himself and his relationship with customers are big drivers of the business.

“Whenever somebody comes in, they always want to talk to him,” said Cody Fuller, 30, an O’Hanlon’s bartender for eight years.

Working for O’Hanlon is easy because nobody works harder, or longer hours, than the man whose name is on the outside of the building.

“It’s like he’s two people. He is here all the time. How he manages to be at home to look after his kids and be with his wife, I don’t know.”

Fuller acknowledges that O’Hanlon’s is enjoying never-seen-before success.

“I remember coming in as a customer when it was still this long skinny dark bar and Niall was the only person in here. He was panicking and wondering whether the people would come,” said Fuller. “I am glad people eventually came.”

For O’Hanlon, even though he’s putting the finishing touches on his recent renos and is awaiting delivery of his brew pub equipment, is planning more expansion. He hopes to revamp his menu and turn O’Hanlon’s into a gastro pub that serves high-end fare.

“Hopefully, the brew pub leads to more growth … but I have no set time frame.

“That is why I am not an accountant.”

© Copyright (c) The Regina Leader-Post

Source: Andrew Matte, leaderpost.com

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